I spend a lot of time defending chick lit against negative high-brow bibliophiles. I’ve started many a post about how strongly I feel about the importance and enjoyment of this genre. You’d think with how often I defend it that I would also favor the genre against all others. It doesn’t, however, quite take the top spot. That belongs to another genre that I also frequently defend and one that critics despise almost as much as chit lit: historical fiction. Why is the best kind of reading criticized the most??
I’ll never be able to answer that question, but I can tell you that, when done right, historical fiction novels have me flying through them at lightning speed. Usually, I lean toward war-related reads when perusing this genre, but — as you know — I’ve been slightly obsessed with learning about Russia and the Cold War lately. So after Red Sparrow failed to live up to my impossibly high expectations, I figured I needed to draw back into a genre that rarely lets me down, so that I could get my Cold War fix.
I came across Our Woman in Moscow a few months ago in a Buzzfeed books newsletter discussing new novels that were sure to make a splash. It seemed to have everything I was looking for: historical fiction, a Cold-War era timeline and World War II, and an intriguing plot. I didn’t realize I’d also get some badass female characters written with City of Girls-like characterization. I cannot sugarcoat it: This book made a giant splash, and I absolutely devoured it.
Ironically, I’ve read more thrillers and mysteries in the past six months than in the past few years combined. But bringing in “horror” elements takes it a bit too far. I notoriously refuse to watch any kind of horror flick because I know how I will react, and why would I intentionally scare myself? No no. I can read a thriller every now and then, but I stay far away from anything horrific.
That is unless you throw a critically and culturally acclaimed novel in my face.
Enter: Mexican Gothic, a book that is equal parts thriller and mystery with a whole lot of horror happening on top. If you know me, then you know this is not a typical read for Beth. However, I do like to challenge myself and try new things, and more importantly, I have to see for myself if a book lives up to the hype, and Mexican Gothic had a whole lot of hype. So I put on my big girl pants to read this terrifying book, which did indeed give me the heebie jeebies. You have been warned.
I happened to be reading Stay with Me Mother’s Day weekend, which was interesting timing as the book chronicles the pressure and pain of trying to become a mother. I have friends who are currently mothers (some through careful planning and some by accident), friends who recently gave birth or are currently pregnant, friends who are struggling to conceive, and friends who don’t know if they want children. Then, there’s me — someone who’s known since college that she did not want to be a mother.
I get very frustrated on the topic of motherhood because, while there’s so much damn pressure to become one regardless of how difficult it may be for someone, society certainly doesn’t support women once they become mothers. Women are expected to have it all and to be everything all at once. The expectations are incredibly illogical and unjust. So even though I personally don’t want to a mother, I get fired up for all my female friends and family suffering from impossible expectations and challenges.
These thoughts stayed with me while reading Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s debut novel, which makes profound statements about the various struggles of motherhood. I can’t say that I absolutely loved this book, but I was captivated by everything it had to say and the cultural context in which it made its statements. And if you were wondering, yes, the hypocrisy and criticism that the main character faces definitely evoked some angry emotions from me.
Do you ever feel like a book has it all? Hardly ever. It’s a challenge to find a book that engages you; perfectly utilizes a plethora of literary devices; has poetic writing without seeming over the top or losing you; tells a really good story; and has powerful themes. When you do come across this rare occurrence, you have to pause and think, “Wow. I loved every part of that book.”
Well, I guess you could say 2021 is off to a great start because I’ve already found a book that has everything. And I finished it only 16 days into the year. That greatness came in the form of Marcus Zusak’s historical fiction novel, The Book Thief, which Kyle had — for good reason — been recommending to me for awhile.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also tell you that this novel somehow made me both laugh and cry. I don’t know how Zusak accomplished so much in 500 pages, but I’m sure glad he did.
I keep an ongoing to-do list on my phone. Every time I finish a book, I add the future review to that list. Every time I think of an “Extra Extra” idea, I add it as well. For the last six months, the top of that list has read “Why I Don’t Have One-Flame Reviews.”
It’s not that every book I read is five-flame fabulous or that I go too easy on books. On the contrary, I tend to round down if I initially want to give a book half of a flame. Earlier this year, I realized that the reason I don’t have any one-flame reviews is because I likely wouldn’t even finish a book if I felt that harshly toward it.
Well, that all changed when I picked up a book that’s received quite a bit of attention in 2020 and that was written by an author whose previous work I thoroughly enjoyed. Before reading The Book of Lost Friends, I knew that — in addition to liking the author — this novel fell into the historical fiction realm, took place after a war, and had powerful themes about literature. All things considered, it was certainly poised to be a top contender for my annual “Ranked” list.
Not long after I started it, though, I heard that familiar echo of the white savior and the tone-deaf decision for a white woman to write from a Black person’s perspective, and it irked me in every single way. To a lesser degree, I also was bothered by incongruent storylines, stereotypes, unfulfilling foreshadowing, and an overabundance of detail. I guess there’s a first for everything.
In college, I took a class on Ronald Reagan. I loved history, and because I was simultaneously taking my dreadfully exhausting capstone, I was trying to limit the amount of time I actual went to and from and sat in physical classes. So I signed up for online classes, as well as one dedicated to the former president that met every Wednesday evening for three hours. (We closed the magazine issue on Wednesday mornings, so yes, yes I slept through most of this class. Still managed to get that A though!)
My professor promised on day one that we would never be able to guess his political leanings, and he was right. Major props to him even if I slept through his lectures. I actually did learn a lot in that class and enjoyed the reading and studying for the exams (you can’t actually be surprised by that statement). He taught me one thing in particular that I’ll never forget and that I’m continuously reminded of in 2020 and with the most recent book I read, American Spy: The main difference between Republicans and Democrats is that the former believes America is the Beacon on the Hill, and the latter does not. Talk about a watershed moment for yours truly.
This moment has replayed itself many times for me in 2020, including when I recently watched an AJ+ video about American exceptionalism (thanks for the rec, Rachel Cargle). And then the next week, I started American Spy, which zeroes in on this exact topic. This is basically a longwinded way of me saying that unfortunately American exceptionalism is stronger than ever, and it’s been on my mind constantly. I’ve witnessed way too much backlash proclaiming this country doesn’t need to change and that it is the best place on Earth.
I’m sure I will lose some readers when I say that it is in fact not the best place on Earth and that there is room to improve.
That’s not to say you can’t love America while simultaneously wishing for change. If you don’t believe me, I suggest you read American Spy. The main character is the perfect character study in having doubts about your country but being an active participant to catalyze change. Thankfully, there are a plethora of authors who have chosen to use their incredible stories as teaching moments for this topic. I can only hope that one day America’s ego will somewhat deflate.
Since we were sprightly little teenagers, my cousin Kaitlyn Wibbenmeyer and I have bonded over our shared love of books. And in particular, we’ve been fond of (re: obsessed) with one author in particular: Emily Giffin. So I knew when Giffin’s latest novel, The Lies That Bind, was released early this year, Kaitlyn and I would have to discuss. And boy, did we have a lot to say.
In the latest episode of The Biblio Files, Kaitlyn and I chat about Giffin’s amazing and relatable characters; how she brought 9/11 into her fictional tale in such a sensitive yet powerful way; and how her writing has matured and improved over the years. (Yes, somehow it’s possible to keep getting better when you are already so good.) We even make the claim that The Lies That Bind has set a new Giffin standard. And yes, we fangirled … hard. We left our love for Emily Giffin on this recording, and we are not afraid to admit it.
(We’re currently accepting applications for the EG fan club as we speak.)
Listen to our conversation about The Lies That Bind on your preferred podcast platform. Don’t forget to share and subscribe and to also visit Anchor where you can become a supporter of The Biblio Files. Enjoy!
Y’all should know my love for Emily Giffin by now. I’ve never tried to hide it since I first read Something Borrowed when I was 15. In a way, I’ve grown up with Giffin’s writing, and I’ve seen a change in her books just like I’ve seen a change in myself. But there are some aspects of Giffin’s work that have never altered, and for that I am grateful.
From her first book to the her 10th, she’s showcased an incredible ability to write great and relatable characters, and she excels at telling stories that thrive in that gray area that makes literature so wonderfully complex. These same attributes are ever-present in her recent novel, The Lies That Bind, which might just be her best work yet.
The most popular books can make me a bit weary before I read them. I don’t have the best track record, you see. Normal People, which dominated the first half of 2020 both in written word and on TV, left me depressed and confused. Last year, I dived into three critically acclaimed novels — Queenie, Tell Me Lies, and The Female Persuasion — that, while I didn’t dislike them, left me unfulfilled. Even when I read The Overstory, which I rated four flames, I didn’t see quite what the critics did. Then I have books like City of Girls, the kind that completely enrapture me but some have called boring and bland.
Why can’t I connect with literature that means so much to critics and fans alike? Is this a me problem or a them problem?
So I did wonder if Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half would live up to all the hype. This one will surely be on all of the “Best of 2020” lists and win many awards (if it hasn’t already) because it’s already received so much praise since releasing in June. Given that I’d read her debut novel, The Mothers, and completely loved it, I had confidence that this wasn’t just a book I’d obsess over. This would also be a novel that the U.S. — with its systemic racism and struggle with identity — desperately needed and needed ASAP.
Thankfully, Bennett washed away any and all doubts about it living up to the hype. And I can’t wait to see it on all those lists and with all of those nominations at the end of this year.
City of Girlsis one of the best books I’ve read in 2020. I laughed and smiled while reading it more than any other novel in recent history, and I’m very grateful this five-flame book came into my life. I have my dear coworker and friend, Sakshi, to thank for that.
Back in April, at the beginning of quarantine, I called Sakshi to have a lovely conversation about this book that we bonded over. During our chat, we covered the literary and New York gamuts. From the contradictory idea of being both a good person and an interesting person and how our literary opinions can change over time to our obsession with New York City and our personal stories of moving to this new place we call home, we covered it all.
Click on this link or search for The Biblio Files on your favorite podcast platform to listen to our conversation. And make sure you subscribe and check out Anchor to see how you can support this podcast.